Trail running has skyrocketed in popularity in the past couple years, with more people ditching roads for rugged paths in the woods. Instead of a boring run around the neighborhood, runners can jump over fallen trees and dash up steep hills to get some exercise while enjoying nature. For those that are looking to trade in the track for the trail, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Remember the (unspoken) rules.
Be aware of your surroundings and adhere to trail running etiquette. With trail running, you’ll often encounter things you wouldn’t on a track — horses and mountain bikes, for example. Runners should always yield to horses, and bicyclists should yield to runners. Not everyone is aware of this (or bothers to adhere to it), of course, so you should always watch what others are doing and follow suit.
Leave nothing but your footprints.
Many people hit the trail to get back to nature, but a bunch of plastic bottles and wrappers lying across the path not only ruins the experience, but the environment. Paper towels and tissues may be biodegradable, but it still takes weeks for them to disappear — and it’s still disrespectful to those trying to keep the trail clean. Throw away your trash in the appropriate containers, and try not to disturb too much of the environment, including wandering off the trail.
Start slow and small.
Running a trail is much different from running a track, with its roots, branches, hills, holes and more. So start somewhere a little in between — head to a well-traversed park or relatively flat and unobstructed trail to see what it’s like before exploring the woods. Many runners quickly realize that trail running is much more demanding on the body, and take double, triple or quadruple the amount of time to run the same distance on a trail than on a track.
When you do start on a trail, walk up the hills instead of trying to run them at first. Slow down your overall pace, too — not only will you conserve your energy, but you’ll be able to search the trail in front of you for any obstacles.
Before heading out on your own, let someone know where you are planning to run and what time you expect to return. Take your cellphone and ID as well as a trail map and water with you – the FlipBelt makes it easy to carry everything you’ll need while keeping your hands free and your pack lightweight. Trails are also often located in wildlife-rich areas, so do some research on the local animals and what to do if you encounter them.
Though music often helps runners get “in the zone,” it may be wise to ditch the headphones — at least for the first couple of times on the trail.
Adjust your running technique.
You may have spent weeks, months or even years practicing proper running form to perfect your stride. On a trail, you’ll have to make some adjustments.
Your gaze: Road running techniques often instruct runners to scan the horizon, but trail running requires you to be much more aware of what lies a few feet ahead of you. You should still keep your gaze focused forward, not at your feet, but you shouldn’t let yourself zone out.
Your arms: Instead of keeping your arms steadily swinging at your sides, let them go a bit wild. Keep them a little further away from your body to help you balance on rough terrain, and let them swing hard to propel you up hills.
Your feet: Pick your feet up higher to avoid tripping over rocks and roots. You should expect to fall at least once, though — trail running is tiring, and you’ll find your feet dragging after a while.
Get the right gear.
The outdoors can be dirty. You may fall into some mud (especially if you’re inexperienced), brush against low-hanging branches, climb boulders and sweat harder than you have in years. Wear clothing that isn’t restrictive, but won’t snag on rocks or branches. Make sure our running belt or pack isn’t bulky and won’t get in the way of free, easy movement.
Regular road running shoes can work for flat, well-worn trails, but those running in more rugged conditions need traction and a sturdy shoe. Trail running shoes are generally heavier in order to withstand rougher trails and feature soles that have plenty of grip.
Happy Trails to You
You won’t know what it’s really like until you're out there, but it is helpful to know basic trail running tips before you take off. If you start slow and steady, adjust your technique and bring all the right stuff, you’ll be running the toughest trails in no time.